“Is there room in the game for a lame who rhymes? Who wears short shorts and makes jokes sometimes?”
These sorts of questions consumed Camp, the official debut album from Donald Glover‘s Childish Gambino project, when it came out in 2011. The record was intensely anxious and frequently biting, emphasizing Childish Gambino’s distance from rap’s mainstream – “No live shows, cause I can’t find sponsors/For the only black kid at a Sufjan concert” – even as he seemed to hope for its acceptance.
On Sunday, Childish Gambino released “This Is America,” a wildly different kind of statement. After once venting his frustrations with narrow conceptions of black masculinity in hip-hop, he teams up with rappers who would formerly have been out of reach – Quavo of Migos, 21 Savage, Young Thug and Blocboy JB are all credited on the track – and raps in the popular style of the moment, composing verses from short, bludgeoning lines and whooping ad-libs. And while Childish Gambino rapped frustratedly about often-glossed-over divisions within the black community on Camp, his new single suggests a united front brought together by the constant threat of racially motivated violence.
The difference between Childish Gambino in 2011 and 2018 at first seems startling. But since he was unwelcome in hip-hop’s mainstream when he started, Childish Gambino was forced to succeed without its support, which in turn meant he was never required to adhere to its rules. Instead, he charted his own idiosyncratic course through the music industry. “This Is America” is yet another zigzag in a career full of them.
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“A lot of people, I’m not gonna say any names, were not rocking with Donald in the industry [when he started],” says Kehinde Hassan, one half of the production duo Christian Rich, who contributed to several Childish Gambino projects. “Hip-hop music is harsh. People are like, this is struggle music, and you can’t go from doing well [as an actor on Community] and come down to struggle music. You have to start with struggle music and then do everything else. It’s hilarious all these famous people are sweating him now.”
Without the help of hip-hop institutions – notably he didn’t have a hit on rap radio until 2017 – Childish Gambino had to find other means to stay afloat. Until January, he was signed to the label Glassnote, which is known primarily for indie-rock acts. His principal collaborator for much of his career has been Ludwig Göransson, a Swedish composer who also worked on Community; Göransson was not native to hip-hop and thus not hung up on its traditions.
Childish Gambino’s stylistic independence was evident immediately. “There was ambiguity [on Camp] – he takes lefts and rights at will,” says Zane Lowe, creative director for Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio. “Whenever you have an artist who does that in the early stages, it takes some people a while to catch up and realize that that level of unexpectedness is the hook. It takes longer to buy into a polymath.”
More listeners started to buy into Childish Gambino as the importance of melody rose in hip-hop. The line between MC and singer all but vanished in the wake of Drake’s runaway success, and criticisms that Childish Gambino rapped about on Camp – “you act too soft” – seemed increasingly beside the point. His melodic guile was evident on the fluid mid-section of 2013’s Because the Internet, which featured a soothing track produced by bass virtuoso Thundercat and another with the singer Lloyd, who scored a string of feathery R&B hits in the 2000s.
Lloyd attended the same performing-arts high school as Glover in Atlanta, but he was initially befuddled by Childish Gambino’s music and hesitant about collaborating. “There’s only two times I’ve almost blocked a blessing in my life,” Lloyd says, “and it was with Drake and Donald. At that time, I was used to artists like Young Jeezy, that aggressiveness. What [Drake and Donald] were doing was unorthodox.” But Lloyd changed his tune after watching Glover’s self-directed “3005” video, and he agreed to contribute to “Telegraph Ave,” which he now calls “one of my favorites.”
Lloyd wasn’t the only listener won over by the shiny “3005”: The song became a hit in the radio format known simply as “rhythmic,” which pumps out a high-energy, genre-agnostic mix of hip-hop, dance music, pop and R&B. Hip-hop radio still wouldn’t touch Childish Gambino, but “3005” went platinum without its help. “It was the only independent record that year that went Top 10 in the [rhythm] format,” Glassnote Records’ Nick Petropoulos, who handles the label’s promotion, says proudly. “I think it was also the only or one of the few records that went Top 10 without a feature. He broke a lot of ground with that record. A lot of people were rooting for Childish Gambino.” A maverick was picking up steam.
He included another “3005”-like record on his next release (“Sober”) before abandoning hip-hop entirely on Awaken, My Love! – a bewildering move for someone who had enjoyed success as a rapper. Or was it? Since his career didn’t depend on hip-hop gatekeepers, he was free to pursue whatever direction he felt like. In this case, that was humid, slap-bass–heavy funk. He was paying homage to the Seventies, he said in interviews, when black popular music appeared to be “trying to start a revolution.”
Glover had already done that, though, by forging a career without help from the usual power players. And with the extra-musical success of his show Atlanta, which completed its first season in 2016, and the announcement that he would appear in a Star Wars film, his influence reached the point where he could move public opinion as much, if not more, than most star rappers with traditional career paths.
This became evident over the eight months it took for the Awaken, My Love! single “Redbone” to become ubiquitous. The track was defiantly out of step with the contemporary blend of R&B and hip-hop that is demanded of most black singers who hope to achieve commercial success. And the majority of the records played on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio are rap, limiting the chance that any R&B single will cut through.
But Glover’s public stature encouraged people like Terri Thomas, Operations Manager and Programming Director for Radio One in Houston, to defy precedent and test “Redbone” on the mainstream station she programs. “Childish Gambino is one of our cultural leaders,” she says. “Taking that into account helped with my decision.” In an era of increased fragmentation, “Redbone” became the kind of rare hit that was welcomed everywhere – the pop audience took to it, and dance DJs found ways to mix it into their sets. “The new way to have the popular radio record is to not give a fuck about having that record,” says Problem, who contributed to Because the Internet. Childish Gambino already excelled at this – he had no other choice.
“The longer the road he’s had to take to get to the point he’s at now has afforded him the most precious of all environments,” Zane Lowe adds. He can control and be deliberate with everything he does. He exists within his own context.”
That makes it a good time for Childish Gambino to release “This Is America,” a tense, turn-on-a-dime blend of turbulent hip-hop and acoustic gospel. In a sense it’s the most straightforward zag in Childish Gambino’s career: Get a major label deal with RCA, work with several successful rappers at once, do a viral dance popularized by Blocboy JB. But it’s also a leap away from the throwback comforts of Awaken, My Love! and a direct dive into the grisly present, all offered up at a time when there have never been more people listening to Childish Gambino. “It’s a cool-ass way to start a conversation that’s important with people that otherwise may not take the time,” Thomas says. “But he’s making it in a way where people can play it in a club.”
And as hip-hop’s most famous figure, Kanye West, appalls his fans with a stream of hurtful statements, hip-hop listeners are suddenly finding solace in Childish Gambino, a figure that once left some of them baffled and others dismissive. “I called Big K.R.I.T. the other day to talk to him about this Kanye West thing that’s going on,” Lloyd says. “K.R.I.T. was like, ‘Man, I haven’t even gotten into that yet. But this new Childish Gambino’s the shit.'”